Remembering Sam Phillips

Sep 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Rick Clark


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“He potentially changed every life on this planet simply by recording music. I certainly have other heroes in life, but I've never met a man like him,” says producer/musician/artist Jim Dickinson of recording legend Sam Phillips, who passed away in July, due to respiratory complications.

Dickinson's reflection might be an exaggeration if he were talking about almost anyone else in the recording world, but truly, many of us wouldn't be doing what we do today had it not been for the revolution Phillips started in Memphis in the 1950s.

Samuel Cornelius Phillips was born on January 5, 1923, in Florence, Ala. In 1942, he began work in broadcasting. After stints in Alabama and Nashville, he settled in Memphis and started work at WREC, recording big bands at the Hotel Peabody for broadcast. There, Phillips began actively experimenting with mic placement that would highlight a band's strengths and the interaction of the performance in the room's ambient space. When it came time to build his own studio, Phillips had clear ideas about the importance of creating the correct acoustical space and the creative utilization of microphones. He also had strong feelings about the type of music that he wanted to record.

Phillips built the Memphis Recording Service (which later became Sun Studios) in 1950; it was the town's first independent studio. There he recorded and produced groundbreaking, seminal sides from Howlin' Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rufus Thomas, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, B.B. King and, of course, his most famous discovery, Elvis Presley. Most of these were released on Phillips' Sun Records label, which he formed in 1952.

Among the legendary Phillips-produced recordings are Elvis Presley's “That's All Right,” Johnny Cash's “I Walk the Line” and Carl Perkins' “Blue Suede Shoes.” Phillips also produced what was arguably the first rock 'n' roll record in 1951: Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats' propulsive “Rocket 88,” which reached Number One on the R&B charts.

Phillips' Sun Records productions are among the most distinctive sounding in recorded music. These days, when so many tracks suffer from overproduction, it is instructive to remember Phillips' trust in the honesty of the raw, creative moment, as well as the fact that his recordings captured that brilliance with no more than five microphones.

Another quality that set Phillips apart was his intrinsic belief in what he called “the undeniable importance to God of every individual soul.” In an October 2000 “Mix Interview,” Phillips explained, “I loved what I knew black and poor white people in the South could do with music if only they were heard, and I loved the close kinship between the two: between country music and blues music. There's not much difference there. It's such honest music.”

Presley was probably the ultimate manifestation of Phillips' vision of merging black and white regional sounds. Though Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA for almost $40,000 in 1955, his success continued with hits by Perkins, Charlie Rich and others. In 1960, Phillips built the state-of-the-art Phillips Recording Services at 639 Madison Ave. in Memphis, and legendary recordings continued to take place, including Amazing Rhythm Aces' “Third Rate Romance,” Jerry Jeff Walker's “Mr. Bojangles,” Sam the Sham & The Pharoahs' “Wooly Bully,” as well as more arcane cool sessions like The Yardbirds and Phillips' 1979 production of John Prine's album Pink Cadillac.

Besides spotting great raw artistic talent, Phillips hired and trained a handful of engineers who would go on to great success, as well.

“He was probably more instrumental in getting more people into the music business — especially people who went on to be highly successful — than anybody I know of, like Alan Reynolds, who produced all of Garth Brooks' records, Jack Clement, Billy Sherrill and Rick Hall,” says Roland Janes, studio manager/ engineer for Phillips Recording and original Sun Recording session guitarist.

Clement, who recorded some of Jerry Lee Lewis' most famous records at Sun and later went on to produce many of Cash's great records, says, “Sam gave me my first job in the music production business. He encouraged me to go out there and be different: Get wild, get crazy. Do everything wrong. I started off with a guy who is an experimenter, so I became an experimenter.”

In 1986, Phillips was inducted into the inaugural class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with Sun artists Presley and Lewis. Subsequent honors include the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (1987), the Blues Hall of Fame (1998), the Country Music Hall of Fame (2001) and the TEC Awards Hall of Fame (2000). Sun Studio was declared a National Historic Landmark on July 31, 2003, the day after Phillips passed away.

Phillips' family members have requested that tributes be made in the form of donations to the University of Memphis School of Music's Sam Phillips Scholarship fund, which grants money to music business and music technology students; call 901/678-4372.

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Learn more about the legend: Mix's final interview with Sam Phillips was in October, 2000, with contributing editor Barbara Schultz. Read it here..

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